Bird Dream: Adventures at the Extremes of Human Flight

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9780143127468: Bird Dream: Adventures at the Extremes of Human Flight

PEN / ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing (2015 LONGLIST)

“[P]erversely entertaining... In a truly intoxicating read that was hard to put down, Matt Higgins has managed to make real a world about as far removed from daily life as it gets.”
 --Daily Beast


"Matt Higgins cracks open this astonishingly dangerous sport and captures the spectacular adrenaline surges it delivers."--The Wall Street Journal

"[R]iveting... a must-read. A highflying, electrifying story." --Kirkus (STARRED)


A heart-stopping narrative of risk and courage, Bird Dream tells the story of the remarkable men and women who pioneered the latest advances in aerial exploration—from skydiving to BASE jumping to wingsuit flying—and made history with their daring.

By the end of the twentieth century BASE jumping was the most dangerous of all the extreme sports, with thrill-seeking jumpers parachuting from bridges, mountains, radio towers, and even skyscrapers. Despite numerous fatalities and legal skirmishes, BASE jumpers like Jeb Corliss of California thought they had discovered the ultimate rush. But all this changed for Corliss in 1999, when, high in the mountains of northern Italy, he and other jumpers watched in wonder as a stranger—wearing a cunning new jumpsuit featuring “wings” between the arms and legs—leaped from a ledge and then actually flew from the vertiginous cliffs.

Drawing on intimate access to Corliss and other top pilots from around the globe,Bird Dream tracks the evolution of the wingsuit movement through the larger than life characters who, in an age of viral video, forced the sport onto the world stage. Their exploits—which entranced millions of fans along the way—defied imagination. They were flying; not like the Wright brothers, but the way we do in our dreams.

Some dared to dream of going further yet, to a day when a wingsuit pilot might fly, and land, all without a parachute. A growing number of wingsuit pilots began plotting ways in which a human being might leap from the sky and land. A half dozen groups around the world were dedicated to this quest for a “wingsuit landing,” conjuring the pursuit of nations that once inspired the race to first summit Everest.

Given his fame as a stuntman, the brash, publicity-hungry Corliss remained the popular favorite to claim the first landing. Yet Bird Dream also tracks the path of another man, Gary Connery—a forty-two-year-old Englishman—who was quietly plotting to beat Corliss at his own game. Accompanied by an international cast of wingsuit devotees—including a Finnish magician, a parachute tester from Brazil, an Australian computer programmer, a gruff hang-gliding champion-turned-aeronautical engineer, a French skydiving champion, and a South African costume designer—Corliss and Connery raced to leap into the unknown, a contest that would lead to triumph for one and nearly cost the other his life.

Based on five years of firsthand reporting and original interviews, Bird Dream is the work of journalist Matt Higgins, who traveled the world alongside these extraordinary men and women as they jumped and flew in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Offering a behind-the-scenes take on some of the most spectacular and disastrous events of the wingsuit movement, Higgins’s Bird Dream is a riveting, adrenaline-fueled adventure at the very edge of human experience.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

MATT HIGGINS is a freelance journalist whose writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Village Voice, Popular Mechanics, Outside, and ESPN the Magazine. He lives in western New York with his wife and their sons.

@ByMattHiggins
www.matt-higgins.com

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

AUTHOR’S NOTE

These pages are the result of five years of research, reporting, and writing, a process that required travel on four continents and exploration of internal landscapes I hadn’t known existed.

For years I had been writing about so-called extreme sports, such as skateboarding, snowboarding, big-wave surfing, and free-style motocross. So it seemed natural to editors at the New York Times that I should look into BASE jumping, an activity that could hardly appear more extreme. It was during the course of my research that I discovered wingsuit flying and learned that some pilots had ambitions to actually land without a parachute. The idea captivated me from the start.

When I began, there was no guarantee that anyone would succeed in flying and landing without a chute. But to dwell on that possibility, it seemed, missed the point. The point was that in a unique and fascinating sphere of sports, men (mostly men, anyway) were willing to confront a stark choice: succeed or possibly die trying. The high stakes and commitment required by practitioners appealed to my most basic instincts as a journalist; the challenge, and joy, would come from uncovering their humanity.

In the course of examining the characters, culture, training, and courage required to perform a BASE jump with a wingsuit, I would come to meditate on questions concerning the nature of risk: What kind of person not only approaches the edge, but then leaps off? Why are some attracted to scenarios that seem counter to the most basic instincts for self-preservation? Do they suffer from a deficit of fear? Is their behavior pathological? Which specific skills are required for survival?

Bird Dream is an attempt to answer those questions and scores more encountered along the way.

INTRODUCTION

Who are these that fly like a cloud . . . ?

—Isaiah 60:8

SATURDAY, JULY 16, 2011

On the morning that would make him famous, mountains upon mountains stretched to the horizon, and the air at seven thousand feet above sea level came cool and thin. An occasional gust bent thick grass on the ledge around his black boots. And more than a mile below, in a plush green valley, sun caught the waters of the Walensee and warmed cobblestones in a distant Swiss village along the lakeshore. It was one of those glorious days. The view, the sun and wind on your cheeks, made you grateful just to be alive.

“What do you reckon, ten miles an hour?” one of his companions asked Jeb about the wind. “Twelve?” Jeb was Jeb Corliss, a thirty-five-year-old stuntman and BASE jumper from California—“BASE” being an acronym for “buildings, antennas, spans (bridges), and earth (cliffs),” the primary objects that practitioners leap from. Jeb had plunged from the Eiffel Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge, Angel Falls, in Venezuela, and the Petronas Towers, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; from countless mountainsides; and into a cave in Mexico more than a thousand feet deep. With a thousand jumps and counting, he was one of the leading lights in the most dangerous sport yet devised.

“More,” Jeb replied, not taking note of the scenery, his mouth hard-set, conveying the seriousness of what he was about to attempt.

 · · · 

HIS COMPANIONS ON THE ledge that morning were a Swiss graduate student named Gian, a British model with a West Country accent named Jessica, and an American reporter with a notebook and pen—and a case of nerves over what was coming. Jeb stood out among this group, as he tended to in any gathering. Rawboned, six feet three inches tall, and sharp-featured, he dressed all in black, from hiking boots to cotton pants to a spring jacket. On his head, a black knit beanie covered a scalp usually shaved smooth as a lightbulb but which was showing a bit of stubble this day. Modern mirrored sunglasses shielded his eyes. At his feet sat a black nylon stash bag, from which he had pulled gear moments earlier. Out came his parachute rig, helmet, a pair of goggles equipped with GPS sensors, gloves (all of which were black, too), the latest miniature point-of-view (POV) cameras, and, of course, his wingsuit.

Nearby on the ledge, the Swiss BASE Association had placed a comfort station consisting of a weatherproof black box containing cigarettes, rope, chocolate, and a logbook and first-aid kit. Above the box, a sign read:

SPUTNIK

After some misunderstandings with locals and negative press about jumping here the situation is relaxed right now.

Please use some common sense to keep it this way.

Thanks.


   · This is an advanced BASE jump suitable only for experienced wingsuit pilots.
   · Know your limits.
   · Rockdrop is about 230 m/750 ft.
   · Watch out for airtraffic.
   · Please no close flybys on paragliders.
   · No littering.
   · Let the world know you have been here, write something in the book.
   · In an emergency call Rega helicopter rescue: +41 333 333 333.
   · The Mountain you stand on is called Hinderrugg, exit coordinates are 47.15323 N 9.302303 E.
   · Enjoy the jump.

One mile below as the crow flies, other members of Jeb’s team had assembled along a meadow dotted with wildflowers and echoing with the slow clang of cowbells. The meadow disappeared abruptly at the mouth of a jagged S-shaped fissure in the mountain, called Schattenloch Canyon, a feature known colloquially as the Crack. This seam twisted through the earth for a few hundred yards before ending sharply at a sheer cliff dropping straight into the valley to Walenstadt, the village from which Jeb and his accomplices had set out by car in the blue hours before dawn.

Two locals, brothers named Christian and Andreas Gubser, had volunteered to act as ground crew. An attorney and a surveyor, respectively, they had connected with Jeb on Facebook after seeing video of him jumping at the site months earlier. Their eagerness to help came from nothing other than a chance to witness something spectacular firsthand.

The brothers took up positions around the Crack, Andreas suspended in a harness tethered to a gnarled old tree on the edge of the ravine. Through a long camera lens he watched his brother, who, wearing a red Montreal Canadiens T-shirt, stood at the mouth of the Crack, clutching by their strings one red and one blue party balloon acquired from a nearby McDonald’s. Stationed to Christian’s immediate left was a father-and-son camera crew from Germany hired by the ABC program 20/20. Their producer, Marc, waited below, on the outskirts of Walenstadt, with a camera to capture the final sequence as Jeb came in for a landing.

 · · · 

UP ON THE LEDGE, Jeb had pulled on a black wingsuit, an innovation that, aeronautically speaking, is more flying squirrel than bird or plane.

Wingsuits are not new; they have captured the imagination of storytellers since man first dreamed of flying. From Icarus to Wile E. Coyote, who crashed into a mesa on his attempt, the results have usually been disastrous. Yet a new design, developed during the past two decades, has made them safer and more predictable. These modern suits feature two layers of tightly woven nylon sewed between the legs and between the arms and torso of a jumpsuit, creating vented wings with cells inside that fill with air and create lift, allowing for forward motion and aerial maneuvers while also slowing descent. Unlike skydiving or BASE jumping, in which trajectories are pretty much vertical, wingsuit flying creates a third dimension by providing glide. Pilots fly along a downward slope, expressed in a ratio of, say, 1:1—for every foot of forward motion, they descend one foot. Some have achieved ratios as high as 3:1, moving three feet forward for every foot of descent, similar to the glide of a parachute. As wingsuits, which cost about $1,000, have become more sophisticated, so have the pilots. The best fliers, and there are not many, trace the contours of cliffs, ridges, and mountainsides, in what’s known as “proximity” or “terrain” flying. That’s what Jeb was about to do at the Crack, the equivalent of a double-black diamond for difficulty.

Grasping a cable bolted to the mountain as a handhold, Jeb traversed a terrifyingly exposed stretch of ledge, the fabric between his legs restricting movement, and arrived at another grassy area; this was the exit. He had jumped here eleven times, the last time months earlier, rocketing over the head of Christian, who had been holding a pair of balloons as a target. The vortices in the wake of Jeb’s wingsuit had ripped the balloons from Christian’s hand and spun them into the Crack, making for stunning video footage, which had stirred a sensation on YouTube and lured the team from 20/20 on this day for another round of what everyone was referring to as a wingsuit William Tell.

 · · · 

THIS TIME JEB PHONED Christian to tell him to expect a jump in two minutes and secured the phone in a pocket. He pulled on a shiny black helmet with cameras mounted on booms like antennae. The helmet covered his head and mouth, and goggles shielded his eyes, making him look like those robot DJs from Daft Punk. He clipped more cameras to his suit. On his back he wore a parachute rig containing a single canopy. In the event of a malfunction, there wouldn’t be sufficient altitude for a reserve.

“Ten seconds!” Jeb called to the others on the ledge, and then: “Three, two, one . . . See ya!”

Every jump is a drama in four acts. In this case, the first part, Jeb’s launch, was unstable. He plunged head first, off-balance, an eight-second drop to the ground below.

Kicking his feet furiously like a swimmer, Jeb gained stability. Arms canted away from his body, legs apart, he resembled Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Vitruvian Man pose. Air rushed into the vents on his suit, and his wings inflated. Jeb glided toward the meadow, gaining speed, mountain terrain and evergreen trees far below. Half a minute passed in flight as he made his approach, air roaring into his helmet like the sound of static. Soaring over the meadow, his shadow vanished beneath his suit, testifying to how close to the ground he was cruising.

Tall pines bracket the entrance to the Crack like goalposts. Aiming for them, he bore down on Christian’s red T-shirt like a black bull to a matador’s cape. Moving at 120 miles per hour, Jeb covered five hundred feet in three seconds, an unholy roar rising up as his suit sliced the air. He was bearing down on his target—fast!

Christian watched him approach, his trepidation growing. Feet apart, Christian steadied, balloons bobbing above him like thought bubbles. Jeb appeared low, possibly too low. A voice in Christian’s head told him, Dive! Dive! Dive! and he lurched to the left, hitting the dirt hard on his chest and practically landing on a startled cameraman, crouched low, viewfinder pressed to his eye.

With a dark flash, Jeb burst past where Christian’s head had been only a moment earlier. Six feet off the deck, the leading edge of his wing snagged the balloons’ strings before they could float away.

Jeb did not flinch. Navigating the ravine in seconds, he emerged out the end, high above town. Reaching back with his right hand to grasp his parachute handle, Jeb pitched the pilot chute to the side, in one motion concluding the second act of his jump, and commencing the third, his parachute opening. His square black canopy bloomed instantly, snapping open like the crack of a whip. The final act of this jump, any jump, required landing, and as Jeb lined up, boots touching gently in freshly mown grass in a farmer’s field, gray slab of mountain looming behind, he giggled over how close he’d come.

Up on the mountain, though, they were not laughing. Not the cameramen from ABC especially. They were galled that Jeb appeared to risk not only his own life but that of another man. Christian confessed to being shaken up too. “I think this jump goes bad,” he said. “It’s so close.”

An element of near disaster would make for compelling footage, though, everyone had to admit. No one could anticipate precisely how compelling the sequence would prove once placed in a nice package and set loose online. Still, they knew they had something special. GPS readings told how Jeb topped out at 123 miles per hour during the 1:20-second flight, traveling a total of three miles.

 · · · 

The following day, the jump over, footage secured, the ABC contingent departed, and Jeb sat in the lobby of the Hotel Churfirsten, across the motorway from the train station with a passel of wingsuit pilots, in town to test their skills from Sputnik too. None of them had their own camera crew in tow, with a producer, reporter, and personal ground crew. They weren’t even staying at the hotel. They had shacked up at a campground, went without showers. They had only come to the hotel for the free wi-fi. In the lobby, they peered at laptop screens and smartphones, checking weather reports, sending e-mail, and updating social media, electrical cords snaking underfoot to feed at outlets, half a dozen conversations carrying on at once.

Jeb talked with two other pilots from California. At rest, he tended to crackle with nervous energy, head tick-tocking, legs pumping like sewing machine needles. He could be loud at times, delivering jeremiads in stentorian tones when excited or angry. Yet he was calm on this afternoon, passions stilled by the close brush with danger a day earlier, all of his quirks, tics, and contradictions went quiet and settled into a serene sort of winsome charm.

“China has forced me to become a little more scientific,” he said, his voice slightly nasal, speaking in the patois of a surfer, which he is. He was referring to a stunt two months hence, in which he would attempt to fly through a gaping hole in the side of a mountain in central China. The stunt would be the first of its kind and the featured event during a daylong spectacular sponsored by the Chinese arm of energy drink maker Red Bull. Jeb had invited several of his friends and fellow pilots along to participate in the extravaganza. And he was treating his jumps that summer in Switzerland as training for a flight that would stretch his skills into unknown territory.

With a multimillion-dollar budget and a national television audience in China, the stunt would be the biggest of Jeb’s career, a career he began with clandestine parachute jumps from the windows of high-rise hotels. But Jeb was finished sneaking around, trespassing, and operating in legal gray areas. The end had arrived in April 2006, when he had worn an elaborate disguise and attempted to parachute from the eighty-sixth-floor observation deck of the Empire State Building, where he was famously captured and handcuffed while dangling on a ledge a thousand feet above Thirty-third Street. His legal problems got him fired from his job as host of a show on Discovery called Stunt Junkies and prompted a reevaluation of his ...

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Book Description Penguin Putnam Inc, United States, 2015. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. PEN / ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing (2015 LONGLIST) [P]erversely entertaining. In a truly intoxicating read that was hard to put down, Matt Higgins has managed to make real a world about as far removed from daily life as it gets. -- Daily Beast Matt Higgins cracks open this astonishingly dangerous sport and captures the spectacular adrenaline surges it delivers. -- The Wall Street Journal [R]iveting. a must-read. A highflying, electrifying story. -- Kirkus (STARRED) A heart-stopping narrative of risk and courage, Bird Dream tells the story of the remarkable men and women who pioneered the latest advances in aerial exploration from skydiving to BASE jumping to wingsuit flying and made history with their daring. By the end of the twentieth century BASE jumping was the most dangerous of all the extreme sports, with thrill-seeking jumpers parachuting from bridges, mountains, radio towers, and even skyscrapers. Despite numerous fatalities and legal skirmishes, BASE jumpers like Jeb Corliss of California thought they had discovered the ultimate rush. But all this changed for Corliss in 1999, when, high in the mountains of northern Italy, he and other jumpers watched in wonder as a stranger wearing a cunning new jumpsuit featuring wings between the arms and legs leaped from a ledge and then actually flew from the vertiginous cliffs. Drawing on intimate access to Corliss and other top pilots from around the globe, Bird Dream tracks the evolution of the wingsuit movement through the larger than life characters who, in an age of viral video, forced the sport onto the world stage. Their exploits which entranced millions of fans along the way defied imagination. They were flying; not like the Wright brothers, but the way we do in our dreams. Some dared to dream of going further yet, to a day when a wingsuit pilot might fly, and land, all without a parachute. A growing number of wingsuit pilots began plotting ways in which a human being might leap from the sky and land. A half dozen groups around the world were dedicated to this quest for a wingsuit landing, conjuring the pursuit of nations that once inspired the race to first summit Everest. Given his fame as a stuntman, the brash, publicity-hungry Corliss remained the popular favorite to claim the first landing. Yet Bird Dream also tracks the path of another man, Gary Connery a forty-two-year-old Englishman who was quietly plotting to beat Corliss at his own game. Accompanied by an international cast of wingsuit devotees including a Finnish magician, a parachute tester from Brazil, an Australian computer programmer, a gruff hang-gliding champion-turned-aeronautical engineer, a French skydiving champion, and a South African costume designer Corliss and Connery raced to leap into the unknown, a contest that would lead to triumph for one and nearly cost the other his life. Based on five years of firsthand reporting and original interviews, Bird Dream is the work of journalist Matt Higgins, who traveled the world alongside these extraordinary men and women as they jumped and flew in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Offering a behind-the-scenes take on some of the most spectacular and disastrous events of the wingsuit movement, Higgins s Bird Dream is a riveting, adrenaline-fueled adventure at the very edge of human experience. Bookseller Inventory # FLT9780143127468

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Book Description Penguin Group USA, 2016. Paperback. Book Condition: New. 1. A heart-stopping narrative of risk and courage, Bird Dream tells the story of the remarkable men and women who pioneered the latest advances in aerial exploration?from skydiving to base jumping to wingsuit flying?and made history with their daring.By the end of the twentieth century BASE jumping was the most dangerous of all the extreme sports, with thrill-seeking jumpers parachuting from bridges, mountains, radio towers, and even skyscrapers. Despite numerous fatalities and legal skirmishes, BASE jumpers like Jeb Corliss of California thought they had discovered the ultimate rush. But all this changed for Corliss in 1999, when, high in the mountains of northern Italy, he and other jumpers watched in wonder as a stranger?wearing a cunning new jumpsuit featuring 'wings' between the arms and legs?leaped from a ledge and then actually flew from the vertiginous cliffs.Drawing on intimate access to Corliss and other top pilots from around the globe,Bird Dream tracks the evolution of the wingsuit movement through the larger than life characters who, in an age of viral video, forced the sport onto the world stage. Their exploits?which entranced millions of fans along the way?defied imagination. They were flying; not like the Wright brothers, but the way we do in our dreams.Some dared to dream of going further yet, to a day when a wingsuit pilot might fly, and land, all without a parachute. A growing number of wingsuit pilots began plotting ways in which a human being might leap from the sky and land. A half dozen groups around the world were dedicated to this quest for a 'wingsuit landing,' conjuring the pursuit of nations that once inspired the race to first summit Everest.Given his fame as a stuntman, the brash, publicity-hungry Corliss remained the popular favorite to claim the first landing. Yet Bird Dream also tracks the path of another man, Gary Connery?a forty-two-year-old Englishman?who was quietly plotting to beat Corliss at his own game. Accompanied by an international cast of wingsuit devotees?including a Finnish magician, a parachute tester from Brazil, an Australian computer programmer, a gruff hang-gliding champion-turned-aeronautical engineer, a French skydiving champion, and a South African costume designer?Corliss and Connery raced to leap into the unknown, a contest that would lead to triumph for one and nearly cost the other his life.Based on five years of firsthand reporting and original interviews, Bird Dream is the work of journalist Matt Higgins, who traveled the world alongside these extraordinary men and women as they jumped and flew in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Offering a behind-the-scenes take on some of the most spectacular and disastrous events of the wingsuit movement, Higgins's Bird Dream is a riveting, adrenaline-fueled adventure at the very edge of human experience.PEN / ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing (2015 Longlist)'Perversely entertaining . . . In a truly intoxicating read that was hard to put down, Matt Higgins has managed to make real a world about as far removed from daily life as it gets.' Daily Beast'Matt Higgins cracks open this astonishingly dangerous sport and captures the spectacular adrenaline surges it delivers.' The Wall Street Journal'Riveting . . . a must-read. A highflying, electrifying story.' Kirkus (Starred). Paperback. Bookseller Inventory # MM-40033272

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Matt Higgins
ISBN 10: 0143127462 ISBN 13: 9780143127468
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Book Description 2015. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Paperback. Journalist Matt Higgins gained intimate access to wingsuit pioneer Corliss; a brash, publicity hungry rich kid from LA who, after years of skydiving, set out to be the first person to be d.Shipping may be from multiple locations in the US or from the UK, depending on stock availability. 294 pages. 0.454. Bookseller Inventory # 9780143127468

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